On the map, Lesotho looks confusing—a small country entirely within South Africa. When you drive south from Johannesburg and see a stupendous rock wall rising from the rolling plains, it starts to make more sense.
words :: Michael Henry.
Once you’ve scaled the wall and found yourself at the top of the world’s second-highest waterfall, you realize that you’re in a true, remote mountain kingdom. And this is an inhabited wilderness: A hike here layers extra challenge and mystery on top of the usual thrill of mountain travel, demanding a wider set of skills than similar hikes in Canada. High Lesotho promises an adventure like no other, an opportunity to be a stranger in a wild land, and a revitalizing undercurrent of danger.
The Drakensberg Traverse
My friend Will and I made it to Lesotho on vacation from our jobs in Zambia, a country of gentle hills. We’d been craving some real mountain action but ran into constraints when trying to find suitable trails in Africa. Many of the best-known mountains on the continent, such as Kilimanjaro, cannot be done independently. Expensive permits, group tours, and curated experiences are the usual story. This is not our style.
After much searching, we found a unicorn: the Drakensberg Traverse, which starts in South Africa, climbs into Lesotho, and finishes back in SA. It centers on the Drakensberg Escarpment that forms the South Africa-Lesotho border, a wall much higher than El Capitan and hundreds of kilometres long, a break in the land so massive that distinct human cultures and recent histories have developed at its top and its bottom. No red tape, no guides—no trails, even. The little online information we could find was made more intriguing by its vagueness, indicating long days tracking rivers through nameless valleys, broken only by encounters with remote-living shepherds. We had worries about the weather, key uncertainties around how to start and finish the hike, and a guy in Johannesburg who promised us that he could get us the right maps. Perfect. We packed our bags and flew to Jo’burg.
The Approach: In the Shadow of Lesotho
As always, the first battle was to get to the mountains with gear intact, longing to trade the thorny problems of society for the simple ones of rock and wind. We picked up stove fuel, trail food, and the elusive maps in Jo’burg. A few hours on a bus brought us through plains and low ridges to Harrismith, which sits in the shadow of Lesotho.
The approach to the mountains gave us a glimpse of the complex, brutal racial dynamics that are central to South African society. Harrismith sits on the plain. It was white-run during Apartheid and still feels white-owned; we noticed deep segregation, and a woman in a grocery store told us to watch out for “those people.” We bartered with our hostel owner to drive us to Sentinel Car Park, the start of the Traverse. The drive took us through Qwaqwa, which in contrast to the straight lanes of Harrismith sprawls over the foothills and has limited government services. During Apartheid, it was the capital of a Bantustan, a “land for Black people”. Its citizens were not allowed to be in Harrismith without a specific work pass.
As we passed through Qwaqwa, the mountain wall that separated us from Lesotho grew to epic proportions. Soon, the car could churn uphill no farther. We hit the trail, stoked for the famous chain ladders that cover the final section of the climb.
Along the World’s Edge
From the car park, a distinct trail climbed up the foggy mountainside before ending at a sign warning us that the ladders were broken. Disappointed, we scrambled up a steep gulch to attain the plateau and enter Lesotho, only to meet day-hikers who said they had climbed the ladders just fine.
And, all of a sudden, we were there. On top. We were in a thick cloud that reduced visibility, so we felt rather than saw the raw scale of the features that we were traversing. We followed a small torrent to the cliff edge and saw it disappear into cloud: Tugela Falls, the world’s second-highest. Huge chasms appeared as we skirted the edge, forcing us back into the plateau. As we stopped to rest, a lone Basotho boy in a dark cloak and white rubber boots appeared out of the mist and stared at us, saying nothing. His silent judgment thrilled and frightened us—we were strangers here. We moved on through the cloud.
Tearing ourselves away from the views, we continued through the river valleys.
The Trek Begins
That night we camped by the Edge of the World, as we had come to know it, and laid our plans for the next five days. The Traverse roughly follows the Edge as it curves to the southeast until the first pass where it is possible to descend into South Africa. Because the Edge is full of cliffs and gaps that block a direct line of travel, it’s most efficient to follow interior river valleys during the days and come to the Edge at night to camp. The challenge of travel on the interior plateau is navigation. We pored over the riverbends and ridges that we would use as landmarks. The final descent remained terrifying, but we decided not to think about that until we saw it.
Our first day in Lesotho broke absolutely clear and we took in the vast treeless highlands around us. The land is textured with deep river valleys winding between high, harsh ridges with few distinct peaks. It’s the type of country that holds more than meets the eye. In the other direction, towards the Edge, the features are immediately and obviously stunning from any angle. Endless sheer drops, hanging valleys, and toothlike spires drop down to the green canyons of South Africa. Ripping ourselves away from the views, we continued through the river valleys.
The Shepherds’ World
We quickly learned that interaction with local Basotho shepherds would be an exciting and intimidating challenge. They always saw us before we saw them. As we came through a valley, we would notice sheep high on a ridge above and then see a cloaked figure moving impossibly fast down the mountain toward us. Every shepherd had a dark cloak, rubber boots, and a pack of dogs. They are mostly teenage boys, who live in stone huts through the winter in this isolated region when everyone else has gone down to lower altitudes. They must be unimaginably skilled and tough to handle the animals and the isolation.
Our meetings with shepherds forced us to think on our feet. We never shared a word of the same language but communicated by grunting and pointing out our direction of travel. The vibe ranged from friendly to curious to somewhat aggressive. In some cases, we had to part with an apple or a handful of nuts to prove our goodwill. We were always conscious of being way out of our depth, as the shepherds proved their deeply superior knowledge of the mountains simply by the way they moved through them. In North American mountains, we are at the mercy of nature, but confident that we are aware of the human undercurrents that rule the place. Lesotho stripped away even this comfort. Despite the cordial daytime meetings, we feared the shepherds at night, and always made sure to camp high and cold near the Edge, far from their huts.
The Rhythm of Mountain Travel in Lesotho
Ultimately, we bonded with the shepherds because we shared with them a feeling of mountain travel in its purest sense. We came from different worlds, but were bound to them by the need to move safely through a tough land. The challenges and lessons of the inhabited wilderness were unique.
We settled into a rhythm. The days were long but made interesting by frigid river crossings, swimming opportunities, and navigation of shepherd encounters. The evenings were opportunities to marvel at the spectacle of the Edge. The bulk of the cliff played with the sunset, painting hypnotic bands of orange and blue in the sky. Endless South African ranges spread out below us, looking minuscule from our lofty viewpoint. When night fell, the lights of faraway South African towns competed with the Milky Way for our attention. The rest of the world still existed, somewhere far down below.
The first spot of trouble struck late on our fourth day in Lesotho. Early in the day, we had made a bad navigation decision and followed a river through deep, punishing canyons for several hours. We thought we were traveling parallel to the Edge, but were in fact going straight into the Lesotho interior. We eventually ran into shepherds trying to fix a motorbike they had somehow gotten into the trackless, rocky land. This sign of civilization made us re-evaluate our route. We were profoundly off course.
We turned up a side-valley back in the direction of the Edge. The sun was going down fast, and we needed to camp soon. The problem was that this tributary was crowded, by Lesotho standards: every 500m or so the valley turned and a new hut appeared, leaving us nowhere out of sight to bed down. We decided to scramble up a narrow gulch sliced by a stream and camp on the ridge up top. Halfway up the gulch, full darkness now, we saw three cloaked figures waving and yelling to us across the canyon. We were too exhausted for another encounter and kept pushing uphill. The figures stopped waving and we figured they had lost interest.
A Night in a Shepherd’s Hut
A few minutes later, they materialized right in front of us. These three teenage herdsmen must have circled the canyon in silence and impossible speed. They asked us to stay the night with them. We considered the situation: we were in the most remote corner of a remote country, with one charged phone between the two us and no service to use it, dog-tired from a long day, cold, unable to speak the language or even see the trail, looking like guys who’d been out in the mountains for a lot more than four days. In short, it seemed like high time to spend the night in a hut. We said yes.
So we followed the shepherds across the moonlit canyon, stumbling across huge, slippery drop-offs, feeling our way over invisible animal tracks. We reached their hut and shoved our bodies and packs in through the hundreds of sheep that clustered around it. The hut was cramped and freezing, with two stone benches, a central clearing for a fire, a 50-kg sack of pap flour in the corner, and a cellphone. We were guests in the truest sense, taking it as it came. Our night in the hut passed in a hypnotized daze; there was no thinking, only feeling. I pulled a large chunk of cheese from my pack and the five of us ate it for dinner. I remember the thick smoke filling the non-ventilated dwelling, the low-voiced Sesotho discussions, the mingling smells of smoke and sweat and dogs and stone, the scratch of the wool blanket, the bitter cold seeping through the doorway, the relief of the gray dawn. Will snapped a shot of me looking near the end of my rope; and we stumbled out, bleary-eyed, and trudged up the valley.
It was time for the downclimb into South Africa. We came over a series of ridges to a spectacular section of the Edge, where sharp peaks contorted themselves as if guarding the pass. We climbed a final hill to the Edge itself and saw the nearly vertical drop we were about to hike down. It was terrifying, but a minimal foot trail proved that it could be done. We took a last look at Lesotho, knowing that its spell would be broken the minute we left it behind, and dropped into the chute.
The white-knuckle descent took us through a fascinating series of ecoregions. The short grass gave way to low shrubs and then a huge diversity of big-leafed ground plants, before finally transitioning to a wet forest. The trail barely existed and we crossed the river a dozen times, wedged ourselves between boulders, and traversed ledges in the walls of the chute. 1200m down from the top, our legs and courage shot, we crawled into a South African parks campsite at the first flat since the top. A group of students on break from university silently pointed us to an open tent site far away from theirs.
We finished the hike in style, following a series of park trails to the swanky Cathedral Peak Hotel. If we reached the hotel, we figured could find some way back to Jo’burg. Rooms were far too expensive for us, but they would let us take a cold shower, ride in the employee’s bus down to town, and most importantly buy a couple of beers. We were physically wrecked, but felt utterly victorious. The bus blasted loud South African pop as it took us back down to the normal world. Back to the same old problems, but Lesotho had given us enough mountain memories to last a while.
- Trail Summary: Start at Sentinel Car Park and end at Cathedral Peak Hotel, both in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. 4-6 days, approx. 80-100km depending on route. Find more info online by searching “Drakensberg Mini Traverse.”
- Visas and vaccines: South Africa gives visa-free access to Canadians and many other nationalities. Lesotho does the same, but the point is academic as there is no border control in the high Drakensbergs. No special vaccines or medications needed unless coming from a country with Yellow Fever risk.
- Transport to trailhead: Contact a hotel in Harrismith, South Africa in advance to arrange transport from Harrismith to Sentinel Car Park. Then get a bus (bookable online) from Jo’burg to Harrismith.
- Transport from trailhead: Cheap (~1 CAD) employee buses leave the Cathedral Peak Hotel daily around 2pm and make it to Bergville around 3pm. If you miss this, they can call you a taxi or you can hitchhike. Bergville has a bus station with several daily buses to Jo’burg (no online booking- leaves when full).
- Maps: The recognized best are the “Slingsby Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park Hiking Maps (H101-H106)”, which is a 6-part series. You need maps 1 and 2 for this hike. They are hard to find near the trailhead and should be sourced in Jo’burg.
- Costs and red tape: Buy a permit for approx. R250 (~20 CAD) per person, paid at a park checkpoint near the trailhead. No need to reserve, no difference in price for more nights on the trail.
Personal safety: Unfortunately, this route is not recommended for solo travelers although some have done it. We were welcomed everywhere but were also glad to have two of us there. Camp near cliff-edges for privacy.